Desperate for relief, ex-Major League Pitcher Micah Bower eagerly agreed to undergo spinal-cord stimulator implant surgery in August 2016.
Although the surgery wouldn’t fix his back, his doctor promised the device would mask the chronic pain he developed after years pitching for the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s, and Washington Nationals.
Sadly, it was not to be. Shortly after the surgery, the pulse generator implanted into Bowie’s stomach migrated, puncturing his diaphragm and destroying his lungs.
Today, the 44-year-old husband and father of two is unable to breath on his own, and his chronic pain is worse than ever.
“I don’t know how much longer I am going to live,” he recently told The Washington Times. “I’ve had multiple times where I made it back, but my family has been dealing with me being in this life and death situation for a long time now.”
Roughly 60,000 Americans undergo spinal-cord stimulator implant surgery every year to treat chronic pain, making these products one of the fastest-growing medical devices on the market.
Generally, the pain implant systems consist of a pulse generator placed into the abdomen or lower back and a lead connecting it to the spine’s epidural space. Once powered on, the generator emits low-voltage electric pulses that prevent pain signals produced by the spine cord from traveling to the brain.
Currently, just four manufacturers – Abbott/St. Jude, Boston Scientific Corp., Medtronic, Inc. and Nevro – dominate the market for spinal-cord stimulator implants. For years, they’ve aggressively promoted their devices as the solution to the opioid crisis and a drug-free option for an aging population plagued by chronic pain.
Unfortunately, Micah Bowie’s harrowing experience is far from rare.
Since 2008, in fact, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) ha received over 80,000 reports of injuries and complications involving spinal-cord stimulator implants
According to the Associated Press, only two other device classes – metal-on-metal hips and infusion pumps — accounted for more.
In some cases, patients suffered shocks or burns when an electronic pain implant malfunctioned. Others experienced worsening pain, infections, nerve damage, muscle weakness, and even paraplegia.
At least 500 peopled died after receiving spinal-cord stimulators. However, it’s not clear whether the deaths were related to the device, or if something went wrong during their implant surgery.
The Associated Press also spoke with 40 spinal-cord stimulator implant patients who experienced problems after surgery, including 28 who who said the devices worsened their pain.
About half indicated they felt pressured to agree to the surgery out of fear that their doctors would cut off their pain medications.
In some cases, manufacturers’ sales representatives were heavily involved in the process, from being present in the operating room during the initial surgery to performing device adjustments without medical supervision during follow-up appointments
Several patients said doctors and company reps disregarded their complaints. And in at least one case, a patient was not told that the device manufacturer had paid their surgeon thousands of dollars to speak at medical conferences and teach others to implant the devices.
“You trust your doctor. You think he’s going to do the right thing,” one woman said, as she patient fought back tears. “I just wanted to live without pain. But now that hope is gone.”